Tag Archives: hans van manen

She’s Just a Small Town Girl

27 May

A staging of Giselle is like a family recipe for apple pie—sweet, simple, and familiar.  However, there are of course unique touches that make each production distinct, and probably the most recent one to have been filmed for a DVD release is the Dutch National Ballet’s staging, with additional choreography by Rachel Beaujean and Ricardo Bustamente.  This was filmed in February of 2009, with Anna Tsygankova in the title role and Jozef Varga as Albrecht.  Admittedly, I knew very little about the ‘Het Nationale Ballet,’ though I’m sure 99% of people who have ever procrastinated by watching ballet videos on YouTube have of course seen that short video clip of Sofiane Sylve (now with San Francisco Ballet) performing some of the most spectacular pirouettes ever, in William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and the coda from The Nutcracker.  I don’t have to post it…but here you go (at least, for those readers who actually have lives and honestly haven’t seen this before):

I really wish both of these performances were on DVD…you can see Marcelo Gomes was her partner in Nutcracker for a split second at the very end, and he simply isn’t filmed enough and I love, no, LOVE what I’ve seen of Vertiginous (it’s to the Finale of Schubert’s Symphony no.9 in C! Hi, amazing!).

At any rate, it’s possible that the company simply hasn’t had a lot of exposure to international audiences, as DVDs are fairly new for them, having only released a handful thus far: Sleeping Beauty (2004), Giselle (2009), and most recently a recording of Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quichot (2011) in addition to Hans van Manen Festival and Hans van Manen: Nederlands Dans Theater, HET Nationale Ballet, which obviously feature works by Hans van Manen, a famous Dutch choreographer who really ought to have more recognition outside of Europe.  Both NDT and the Het have been in the news as of late though, due to funding cuts proposed by the Dutch government, as much as 26% for the Het, which is a huge blow, and even worse is cutting 50% for Nederlands Dans Theatre, Jiří Kylián’s contemporary dance company.  It’s devastating for both companies for different reasons…an insult to downgrade NDT to a “regional company” when his choreography is seen worldwide (Pacific Northwest Ballet included!), and for Dutch National Ballet, a diminishment of status as one of the top international ballet companies.  The Dutch National Ballet has eighty dancers, which is just under a top tier company like American Ballet Theater boasting just over ninety, and the effort to release these films has them just on the edge to gain more notoriety. Hup hup, Holland! Get it together and support the legacy of your arts…they are far greater than you may know! (Petitions for the NDT and Het can be found here and here, respectively, and I encourage you to show your support!).

I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with the Dutch National Ballet’s production of Giselle, and that they deserve every ounce of support available, not only to help them preserve what they have, but also to push them further into the international spotlight.  I would even say that while different, the quality of it is on par with the Royal Ballet. They’re certainly not lacking in talent and I definitely got a sense of their company’s identity throughout their Giselle…they prize exceptionally clean technique, squareness in the pelvis and torso, a lot of emphasis on épaulement, and some of the most marvelously articulate feet I’ve ever seen.  It’s clear in their choice of technique that they train a lot of “rolling” through the feet. A dancer can either spring up onto pointe, or roll through every little joint and muscle to get there, and perhaps harder (and often neglected) is rolling down, which requires incredible resistance in order to not plunk down onto your heels.  Though both techniques are acceptable, rolling does make pointe work much softer.  The Russians that train Vaganova technique favor springing, so they don’t often exhibit as much control in that minute but important transition.  What I found interesting was that distinguishing demi-pointe and full pointe was further exhibited when any of the dancers did what’s called a ‘tombé piqué en dehors’ (or more colloquially, a ‘step-over turn’ or ‘lame duck’). A popular technique is to fall in the tombé into a demi-plié, but the Dutch keep their heels up and step onto demi-pointe. Not all of the dancers were entirely comfortable with this, but the effect is very smooth, and the award for best feet definitely goes to Michele Jimenez and her delightful solo in the Peasant Pas de Quatre…she’s ridiculously good.

The Dutch certainly prefer a more sophisticated Giselle with a rustic feel.  While other productions are quaint, borderline hammy, or even a little too moony, this Giselle is toned down, mature, and very elegant.  Tsygankova found a great balance of portraying a character that is shy and naïve, but with a little more woman to her rather than young girl.  Her mad scene was extremely convincing, and there were a lot of moments before that where gestures cautiously alluded to her heart condition (this one is not a suicide Giselle, or one that dies solely of a broken heart).  I loved her in Act II, where she favored good placement instead of hiked up her hips for higher extensions.  For example, in the short adagio before the iconic pas de deux, Giselle performs a simple arabesque penché with her arms gently crossed in front of her, and Tsygankova really stays over her supporting leg, taking care not to hyper-extend her knee and “sit back” in her penché.  By keeping her pelvis square and her back even, her leg does not go to 180°, but the line between her back and leg was just perfect.

Not Act II, but a lovely variation from Anna Tsygankova:

Vargas is a fantastic Albrecht, electing to portray a version that requires some sympathy, rather than the lusty cad often seen in other stagings. In an interview that’s part of the additional features, Varga discusses why he doesn’t think of Albrecht as a bad person—he’s someone that is caught between love and obligations due to social status.  Albrecht is also a victim of his own naïveté, a sort of “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence” situation where he sees these jovial villagers but doesn’t fully understand what the life of a peasant entails.  Logically speaking, I like this because in other productions one has to wonder if the impetus for Albrecht’s remorse is simply a sense of responsibility over a girl’s death, due to his promiscuity.  Varga’s Albrecht was truly in love with Giselle, and feels regret that he never had a chance to explain the truth himself. With strong acting skills and technical brilliance, Varga just looks so natural and calm. I really like his arabesque line, and also during his Albrecht variation, there’s a double attitude turn en dehors, quite possibly one of the most heinous steps in all of ballet…there’s no other way to describe it than difficult, because the whole time your leg just wants to fly away from you.

Exceptional soloists in the Peasant Pas de Quatre…I already mentioned Jimenez, and the others were Maia Makhateli, Mathieu Gremillet, and Arthur Shesterikov (Gremillet did a double tour in his variation where he landed in a perfect fifth and didn’t budge…my jaw dropped—no shifting feet or bouncing out of it!).  The corps de ballet was also superb throughout, an utter joy to watch but one of the things that really made this production was Igone de Jongh’s Myrtha—absolutely steely presence and this was one area where clarity in her épaulement really accentuated the character.  The Dutch épaulement (or perhaps Beaujean and Bustamente’s choreography) really finds interesting facings, and it’s another aspect of training that is sometimes neglected, and in some cases considered a lost art.  In fact, a lot of what the Dutch do in terms of épaulement, working through the feet, square hips, and even the body types of the dancers seemed more of a throwback to Romantic era ballet.  The only beanpole was Jan Zerer as Hilarion, who I really enjoyed watching in Act I, but something was off in Act II…I could see the desperation and fear, but there just wasn’t enough oomph for me. Though it’s unfair for me to say this, my current theory is that his height worked against him a bit because when you have that much more to work with, you have to be all the more expressive.

Peasant Pas de Quatre

Overall, the Dutch National Ballet does a very well balanced Giselle, emotional without being melodramatic and sophisticated is really the best way I can describe it. The only thing I honestly didn’t like was Bathilde’s costume, a monstrous blue and ivory striped dress (you may have caught a glimpse of it in the Peasant Pas) that I was incredibly resistant to.  Sometimes I like to see the thirty-two entrechat six for Albrecht in Act II (though I swear it’s usually more like twenty-four, if that) although Varga does two diagonals of brisés travelling forward followed by ten entrechat six, which I felt made sense because the diagonal of brisés heads straight towards Myrtha, kind of like a “Myrtha™ tractor beam” that’s pulling him in, which emphasizes her control over him and the “forcing him to dance to his death” thing.  There is an additional variation for Albrecht in Act I though, which is an interesting touch and kind of plays on his desire to have the same freedom as the peasants in the village, or perhaps that he thinks he can so easily live amongst them, when the truth is forgetting obligations doesn’t mean that they go away.

So friends, I highly recommend it, and if you get a chance to watch it (or you already have, live too!) I would love to hear your thoughts and see if you had the same positive reaction to it as I did…occasionally, I need confirmation that I’m not crazy. Meanwhile, check out some Act II highlights while you’re at it:

For Shoeman Peaces

31 Jan

As in any creative endeavor, the artist is bound to encounter obstacles and for the past two weeks I’ve had a monkey-sized writer’s block on my back.  For various reasons, I couldn’t seem to pull ideas together…I had plenty, but when I started to develop those thoughts they just faded away.  It’s frustrating, depressing, disheartening and requires the time old medicine of confections—my current delight being the new Andes Crème de Menthe cookies, which are even better than their after dinner mints…you know, those little rectangular chocolates with a layer of mint, wrapped in the signature green foil that is often distributed as little tokens of gratitude for having dinner at the Olive Garden (though the Olive Garden is very stingy, and will never give you more than one per person…I’ve asked.  On several occasions).  Thanks to these refreshing treats, the restoration process has begun.

I operate under the assumption that eating the whole box in a couple of days means fewer calories...but I was never good at math.

So!  In the spirit of renewal, I wanted to write about a dance completely new to me, and inspired by the anniversary of its debut, thirty-six years ago today at Covent Garden, I’ve selected Four Schumann Pieces, choreographed by Hans van Manen to music by Robert Schumann (Quartet in A major, Op.41, No.3).  I’ve never seen Van Manen’s work before, nor have I seen a ballet to Schumann, whose music I’ve always felt has a distinct refinement and intimacy.  Four Schumann Pieces seems to follow suit with this assessment and so it was impossible to be disappointed.  Overall, I found Van Manen’s style to be quite classical and at times academic, with the occasional dash of modern choreography.  It is however, the kind of piece that requires very disciplined training because placement is key and not having a certain squareness in the hips would result in a faceplant for sure.  It’s deceiving because it’s not a ballet that would strike you immediately as being particularly virtuosic, but it has exceptionally wicked choreography, especially for the lead male dancer.

In the performance I’m including in this post (filmed around 1980), this guy named Anthony Dowell danced the male lead, with Jennifer Penney, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling and Julian Hosking in featured roles.  The ballet has no plot, though the backdrop has horizontal lines could suggest a music staff and with Dowell beginning alone on stage I imagined him as a composer or maestro.  The other dancers I saw as representations of the notes themselves and Van Manen has all of the dancers doing these airy phrases that repeat in canon and truly embody this idea of music coming to life.  I don’t know if this would be a pertinent distinction (well, I guess it has to be if I’m writing it down!) but the difference I saw in this ballet was that it was very conscientious of not just dancing to the music but becoming it and letting the music speak for itself.  The result is quite reserved in terms of choreography as there’s nothing too flashy but when you watch the first male solo, you realize what makes this ballet so insanely difficult.  For example in this first part, at about 2:40 Dowell does the most beautiful, gooiest grand plié in fifth, springs up to passé, stays up on relevé and ever so gently place his foot down into fourth position before going into a pirouette.  So yeah, academic but also ridiculously hard and in order to make it look easy, placement is everything.  I actually laughed out loud when he did it a second time and sprung up to an arabesque on relevé.  I know nothing about ballet is normal, but that is incredibly not normal.

Van Manen gave Dowell a lot of work on relevé, which isn’t unusual for a ballet dancer but sustained movements on relevé are generally reserved for women (as is sliding into the splits and a penchée, both of which Dowell did above, and I though were absolutely fantastic).  There is more of that later on in the piece but the next segment elaborates on Van Manen’s style, which maintains simple lines and minimal port de bras.  While Dowell takes a nap on stage, Penney, Collier, Eagling and Hosking perform a quartet as a pair of duos, which was one of my favorite moments because Van Manen chose beautiful shapes to frame the women with, and I found it sensual without being romantic.  That’s followed by dancers executing simple steps with pseudo-V is for victory arms, which might seem stiff or awkward but it draws attention to the pulse of the music. I have to say there’s something really pleasing about a tempo in a three, especially a waltz.

Following are some different pas de deux, with Dowell partnering both Penney and Collier in beautiful fashion but the most intriguing is perhaps the duet between Dowell and another male dancer (sorry, I can’t tell who it is)…a little male-on-male action, but like I said before this is a ballet not about romance but intimacy which doesn’t have to be sexual, and such choreography is a rarity in neoclassical ballet (and practically nonexistent in anything earlier).  A friend once asked me if I’ve ever had to do a promenade a la seconde and I’m pretty sure I haven’t, though there are plenty in this little duet.  By this point Dowell is understandably sweating like a beast, having been on stage and dancing for a good twenty minutes, there’s an ease and softness to the brief partnership that makes me wish we could see more of such things in new works.  Although talk about unusual partnering, what could be a more fitting end to this section than Jennifer Penney supporting Dowell’s hand as he balances in an arabesque?  It’s no Rose Adagio, but I love the role reversal.

In the last section Van Manen gives snippets of bravura technique, with Dowell having to perform a series of piqué and tombé piqué turns (or piqué tour en dehors, but most certainly NOT “lame duck”…it has a name, people), which I would actually consider to be more along the lines of “women’s work” as well, as this is a very common series to see in pointe work (like in the female variation of Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, or something a ballerina would often do in a coda en manège).  I think Van Manen is on to something here because I feel like his choreography has very few gender biases…and I like it!  The choreography isn’t what I would call innovative, but there are subtle hints of imagination that I find scrumptious…it’s like finding some wild berries on a forest path (yes, when I was little I used to eat such things without knowing or caring that it could potentially be poisonous.  I sort of know better now).

I suppose that’s all for Four Schumann Pieces, which I thought had a familiar charm along the lines of Les Sylphides, with the role of the poet and such.  Regardless, I think it’s safe to say; I’m back boys and girls!  May February be a fruitful month for blogging!